Some years ago a there was an interesting auction in Paris. It was back in 1993, when two tiny slivers of olive wood were sold for more than $18,000. You see, accompanying the two slivers of wood were two certificates from the Vatican that ‘authenticated’ the wood as fragments of the true cross – the actual cross upon which Jesus died. The certificates were from 1855 – but they still carried a great deal of weight.
But you and I, we have not studied, prayed, and worshiped our way through 40 days and nights to be left on Easter contemplating two small slivers of olive wood. We’re looking for something more. For this year, we decided we would take on Justice instead of giving up something for Lent. In so doing, we started searching for a spiritual path as 21st century San Franciscans. We have not traveled through a Justice Lent for an icon of two small pieces of wood that point to the crucifixion instead of the resurrection. Yet what are we to see in this Easter story?
It feels like every few years, some high-ranking church leader somewhere slips into unintended controversy for appearing to deny the reality of the Resurrection. The hapless theologian’s name is in the papers and all over the blogosphere. “Devout” members of their church and churches everywhere are scandalized. There is sometimes talk of excommunication, even if the cleric doesn’t belong to a church that practices excommunication.
On closer examination, it usually turns out that the offending cleric did not actually deny of the physical resurrection of Jesus. Instead, they expressed a vague – you might even say muddled – statement of uncertainty about the exact relevance and meaning of the resurrection in our 21st-century world.
Here’s what’s amazing: if we carefully examine our sacred stories of the Resurrection, we find an abundance of precedent for confusion and muddled thinking. The remaining eleven Apostles – the first bishops, as many believe – prove this point. According to Luke, upon hearing the news of the empty tomb, they reject the women’s testimony out of hand as “an idle tale” and pay no further attention to it. They simply cannot believe their ears.
Peter, of course, at least bestirs himself to visit the tomb and see for himself if the report is true. He sees the tomb is indeed empty – just as the women have reported. But beyond “stooping and looking in,” he unsure how to respond. Rather than breaking out into a rousing rendition of Jesus Christ is Risen Today, or proclaiming loudly the Good News of the Risen Lord, Peter heads straight “home, amazed at what had happened” – as Luke puts it. Which seems to me to be a polite way of saying Peter went home not knowing quite what to make of it all. Some apostle – or bishop – he turned out to be.
The befuddlement does not end there. We hear that Mary herself, according to the Gospel of John, at first does not recognize the Lord at all, even supposing him to be the local gardener. And in the account of the story from the Gospel of Mark, the band of women first head home themselves and sit on the news of the empty tomb, telling absolutely no one of their experience, “for they were afraid.”
So for something we now proudly proclaim as being at the very heart and hub of our faith, the Good News of the Resurrection does not get off to a very auspicious start in our sacred stories. Perhaps it is reassuring – or mildly disappointing – to know that things have not changed very much after some 2,000 years. For we still do not know quite what to make of the Resurrection tale: of Christ’s rising to new life.
We wonder: are we talking about the reanimation of a body that’s was dead for several days? Are we discussing some kind of first-century zombie apocalypse? Or is there something else in this contradictory story of death leading to new life? And if God is not making magic here, then what is this all about?
In this Easter story, I see an experience of the death of one way of life and the birth of something completely new – a complete game changer. And see a way of life that speaks to us here today. For all that we can say about the first Easter is that those early Christians who experienced the risen Christ were so transformed by it that their lives completely changed. Utterly changed. Unalterably changed. They were never the same person they used to be. Not for a minute. That’s what the resurrection looked like to the first followers of Christ. Now, two millennia later, you and I are now defining what resurrection looks like in this time of Trump.
Together, we have studied, prayed, and worshiped our way through 40 days and nights of Lent. Instead of giving up something for Lent, we took on Justice. We searched for a spiritual path as 21st century San Franciscans. Along the way, we have sought justice for Eve in the garden, explored justice for the woman at the well, and found justice in the healing presence of God. During our pilgrimage through a Justice Lent, we remembered God’s promise of truth that can set us free, and how God’s justice renewed life in a valley of dry bones.
Now we stand together, brought to the edge of finding new life as so much of what we once thought secure falls apart. Promise after promise made by those who lead our nation has fallen short. Our healthcare system is at risk. Some of our neighbors tremble in fear of deportation of their family and friends. Others worry about the loss of marriage quality or an end to the public school system or a dramatic increase in deadly pollution from coal and oil use.
In the midst of all this death and destruction, of fear and loathing, we celebrate and point to the resurrection of our lord of love. We celebrate the rebirth of our commitment to the creating God who made each of use and loves us more than we can ever understand. We rededicate ourselves to a life of preaching justice to power and living as a justice people. As our Easter celebration continues during the next 40 days, we’ll continue to explore this spiritual path of resurrection and renewal. Through this, we hope, we will expand our lives as followers of Jesus the Christ.
For Christ is risen. And we no longer look for “the living among the dead.”
Yes: The Lord is risen indeed.
Let us pray. Creator of the universe, you made the world in beauty, and restore all things in glory through the victory of Jesus Christ. We pray that, wherever your image is still disfigured by poverty, sickness, selfishness, war and greed, the new creation in Jesus Christ may appear in justice, love, and peace, to the glory of your name. Let God’s people say: Amen.